Forget dumbbells — build a strong back and biceps with these 3 upper-body barbell exercises

Male with back to camera and arms raised against grey backdrop
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The next time you hit the gym for back and biceps day, consider adding these three barbell exercises to your upper body routine. 

Anyone can benefit from the moves below, including barbell beginners, and you can add them to an existing strength or hypertrophy program to build and strengthen your back and biceps muscles.

After all, switching up your routine every month or two will keep muscles challenged and help prevent the dreaded muscle-building plateau we all face at some stage. Get ready to torch your traps and build your back, and we'll also explore the benefits, muscles worked and how to properly execute each move.

What are the 3 barbell exercises for building back strength?

a woman with strong back muscles

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Barbells are the perfect gym equipment for building strength, power and muscle. You can progressively overload your body by adding weight to the barbell over time, and unlike resistance bands or dumbbells, you won’t run out of options. 

Give these three back and biceps exercises a shot if you’re short on new moves. 

1. Standing barbell shrugs

The upper and mid trapezius get hit hardest during shrugs, helping to sculpt muscle definition in your upper back. Strengthening these muscles also supports posture and protects your shoulders from injury. 

  • Either start with a loaded barbell on the floor in front of you or racked slightly above knee height on a squat rack
  • Grip the bar overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and wrap your thumbs around the bar
  • Keep the barbell close to your shins
  • Brace your stomach, glutes and shoulders and keep your chest lifted and back flat
  • Deadlift the bar to stand. The bar should touch your thighs
  • Lift the bar by shrugging your shoulders upward and backward
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together and keep your arms straight
  • Squeeze your back at the top and pause for a few seconds
  • Slowly lower the bar back to the standing position then repeat for reps

Keep tension in your muscles by moving slowly and with control, squeezing and pausing at the top of each rep. 

2. Barbell power clean

Power cleans build muscular power and work your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, back biceps, core and shoulders.

The move requires you to drive a loaded barbell from the floor to your shoulders in one movement, transferring the load from the lower to the upper body using your legs, core and back muscles while keeping the bar traveling in a straight line close to the body.

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and the barbell in front of you close to your shins
  • Grip the bar just outside your shins and position the bar close to your body
  • Squat, lift your chest and lower your bum
  • Maintain a flat back and look straight ahead
  • Drive up through your feet as you begin to lift the bar with your shoulders over the bar
  • As the bar reaches your thighs, extend your hips and legs, keeping the barbell close to your body
  • Pull the bar upward and quickly drive your elbows under the bar to receive it in the front rack with knees softly bent
  • Stand, keeping your elbows forward

Remember, your arms shouldn’t be doing the majority of the work. The power should be coming from the legs and core and you’ll transfer the bar to your upper body at the last second. 

3. Barbell high pulls

High pulls combine a partial deadlift and upright row, but often (wrongly) get taught as an upright row. The move relies on power as you drive the barbell toward your face and primarily targets the trapezius and deltoids while activating your core, hips and hamstrings. 

Learning the explosive high pull could help you with transition exercises and powerlifting moves like cleans, squat cleans and snatches. Besides, your trapezius muscles respond to powerful exercises, so it’s a great exercise for strengthening and building muscle in your upper back. 

  • Start with your feet hip or shoulder-width apart, core engaged
  • Stand tall without arching your back or rounding your shoulders
  • Grip your barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width using an overhand grip and stand with the bar close to your thighs
  • Softly bend the knees and dip, as if performing a Romanian deadlift, allowing the bar to pass down your thighs slightly
  • Stand and drive the bar upward, shrugging your shoulders and pulling the elbows high to the sides
  • Draw your shoulder blades together to pull the bar in and avoid letting it travel away from your body
  • Lower to the starting position, reset and repeat for reps
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Benefits of these barbell exercises

There are many large, powerful muscle groups in your body, and your latissimus dorsi (wing-shaped muscles down the sides of your back) and trapezius (upper, middle and lower) are just some of the muscles found in your back that create shape, bulk and definition.

The pulling motions that recruit your biceps and back muscles together are great at targeting these muscle groups, alongside recruiting the rhomboids (deeper back muscles responsible for posture and retracting the scapula), posterior deltoids (rear shoulders) and various stabilizer muscles like the rotator cuff. 

The exercises above are primarily designed to hit the traps and shoulders harder. Still, we recommend checking out some of the back and biceps routines below for a well-rounded upper-body workout that targets every major muscle group. 

If you’ve got your back workouts locked in but aren’t sure how to program them to your goals, we cover hypertrophy and strength training techniques and how much protein you need to build muscle to help guide you toward your muscle-building goals. 

Just remember, Rome wasn't built in a day and neither are muscles. You'll need to train several times a week and adjust your training plan as you build strength and muscle. If it's too comfortable, it's no longer serving you. 

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III qualified fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.